Monday, February 15, 2016

Album Review: Aunt Mary - "New Dawn"

Way, way back, there was a Norwegian progressive rock band that headlined shows in their native country and toed the line with heavyweights like Deep Purple and King Crimson on the Scandinavian shores.  That band was Aunt Mary and over the course of thirty some years the magic started to wear off.

Then as the calendar turned past 2010, the occasional reunion show turned into something much more, as the band decided that the time for a new era had begun.  Reunited, the band set out to record new material for the first time in this new millennium….

When disaster struck.  Vocalist Jan Groth was diagnosed with cancer and passed away not long after, urging the band to continue in his stead.  They soldiered on, recordings came together, things were starting to look complete….and again heartbreak darkened the band’s doorway.  Five months after being diagnosed, drummer Ketil Stensvik passed from cancer as well, leaving guitarist Bjorn Kristiansen as the only original member standing in the band.  His conscience heavy, Kristiansen consulted with those around him and decided to continue.

Among his new recruits in the effort to release what would become this album “New Dawn,” Kristiansen brought into the fold Glenn Lyse, 2007 winner of “Norwegian Idol,” a singer who sounds almost like a well-groomed Dave Wyndorf, and “New Dawn,” with a new lineup and a brave face, confronts the masses.

In some of their best moments, this new age of Aunt Mary sound almost like a recall of a very young Aerosmith, as they pounded out the sauntering swagger of “Last Child” in 1976.  The second cut, “Unconditional Love” sounds eerily similar to the “Rocks” single, but there’s a different mood – the wandering bravado of Steven Tyler is summarily replaced by a plain but insightful wondering, which lends some nice depth to the selection.

But stay with me, because this is where the progressive nature sets in.  “Hopelessly Lost” changes pace into a lowdown blues romp, much in the same style as we just witnessed the other day with Supersonic Blues Machine.  It’s got a fun chorus, a breakdown, a two-beat riff, the whole bit.

And then we change again, and the progression really ramps up for “G Flat Road,” an oddly echoed and utterly catchy hum of a song that’s half video game track from the early nineties and half experimental rock tune.  There’s a consistency in the bass line that ties the product together, but on its face this can be pretty abstract.

Not done yet!  We then move onto “I Was Born to Ride on the Wrong Side,” which sharply pivots and we suddenly have a cross of Soundgarden’s “Drawing Flies” and Union Underground’s “The Friend Song,” but with a rock chorus wedged in the middle.  Does it sound out of place?  Sort of.  But does it work?  Sure does.  It might be the best offering on the whole of “New Dawn.”

No, I take that back.  That honor belongs to “Don’t Keep Me Waiting,” the album’s closer, which is a quick ditty that hits with elements of doo-wop and the Andrews Sisters woven into a swing template that is difficult to describe but incredibly fun.  Suddenly there’s a song about waiting on a train platform for ‘my baby?’  Sure.  Makes sense.  Again, hard to describe, but it somehow makes the album work.  Brilliant stuff.

Listen, now isn’t really the time to gripe on Aunt Mary too bad, but it does merit mentioning that several cuts on the back half of the record sort of drop the progressive streak and boil down to songs slightly reminiscent of the E Street Band.  If that’s your thing, there’s added value here.  If not, you may hit ‘next track’ a few times.

So what we end up with here is an album that is vital in the face of loss, which is remarkable in and of itself.  To write convincing emotional content in this form is difficult enough to pull off, but to then make the songs sound optimistic when all is said and done is another feat altogether.  Aunt Mary, through the hardest road and the least likely of all circumstances, is back.

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